Disabled woman left 'pretty much alone all the time' for four months due to DVLA licence backlog

Mandy Altoft says the processing delays meant she felt isolated from colleagues at Brighton & Hove City Council. Credit: Mandy Altoft/Handout

By Multimedia Producer Yohannes Lowe

A woman with muscular dystrophy has said she was left "pretty much alone all the time" for four months as she was forced to work from home while waiting on the DVLA to renew her driving licence.

Mandy Altoft, a Brighton & Hove City Council worker, described how the delays left her isolated from colleagues and entrenched feelings of loneliness experienced while shielding throughout the pandemic.

She said she applied to renew her medical licence in January 2021, but only received it in April 2022, three weeks after asking her local MP Caroline Lucas to directly take up the issue with DVLA officials.

Under section 88 of the Road Traffic Act (RTA), Ms Altoft was allowed to continue driving - with her expired licence - up until December, while her application was being processed.

But she was "very upset" when this temporary extension ran out at the end of last year, as it meant she could not drive into the office or "take part in society".

Ms Altoft said her independence was suddenly snatched away, leaving her feeling "like a child" because she became reliant on others to take her to everyday places like the supermarket.

Ms Altoft said that she took up the delays with Caroline Lucas, her local MP who represents Brighton Pavilion. Credit: Mandy Altoft/ Handout

"I live in a remote area of Coldean, which means there is no social life for me unless people come to me," she told ITV News.

"I had to shield through the pandemic, so it was just more of the same. I was spending a lot of time by myself - not going to the office and getting that social interaction."

"My partner is out all day every day, so I was pretty much alone all the time - all because of the delays."

Ms Altoft has facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, a condition that causes a progressive weakening of the muscles, particularly in the face, shoulder blades and upper arms.

The 44-year-old, who helps to administer and organise street work permits for Brighton & Hove City Council, has to renew her license every three years due to her disability being a degenerative condition.

Ms Altoft said her doctor, who, like others, has to complete and send back medical forms to the DVLA, had still not been contacted by the agency in August 2021 - when she had an appointment with him.

This was despite the renewal application being sent some seven months earlier.

She said the agency's insistence for her to send a new photograph via post also prolonged things, as she had to find someone to drive her around to have an appropriate one taken, then sent off.

There are an estimated 350,000 paper applications currently stuck in the logjam at the DVLA, which has acknowledged medical applications are taking longer than standard ones to process.

There are over 6000 staff employed the Swansea DVLA site, with more at the Birmingham office. Credit: PA

The DVLA, which Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has vowed to digitise, says delays can occur when its officials are awaiting information from GPs to make a licensing decision about whether or not the applicant is fit to drive.

The agency also said some delays were caused by strikes by members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), whose members took industrial action over Covid working conditions in a dispute last year.

“Due to PCS union strikes purposely impacting customers, medical applications are still taking longer, but we do aim to be back to normal processing times for medical applications by the end of September,” a DVLA spokesperson said.

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Charities warn that the delays are negatively impacting the lives of disabled people across the country, with the backlog resulting in a temporary - but often lengthy - loss of independence for many of them.

"Disabled Motoring UK is aware of the backlog problems at the DVLA," Heidi Turner, Disabled Motoring UK Communications & Campaigns Director, said.

"It is having a detrimental effect on the lives of disabled people and we know of some people waiting over a year for a decision.

"We hope that the DVLA will clear this backlog as soon as possible. A driving licence can be a lifeline to a disabled person so it is vitally important that they receive a decision as quickly as possible.”

Kamran Mallick, CEO of Disability Rights UK, is urging the DVLA to increase processing speeds to prevent disabled people from effectively being "housebound for months on end".

“Not having a license stops them accessing work, medical appointments and shopping, and the isolation of not being able to have a social life creates the conditions for poor mental health," he said.

Motorists have described the frustration of trying to to speak to a DVLA agent on the phone, with many giving up after being put on hold for an insufferable length of time.

HGV driver Tim Stevens said he has called the government agency dozens of times in one day to no avail.

He had to send off a medical form to the DVLA last August as he was turning 45, the age from which a HGV medical assessment needs to be passed every five years up until the age of 65.

Mr Stevens was prescribed anti-depressants following a break-up - something he disclosed as part of his medical assessment.

The HGV driver stopped using the tablets in November, but, despite telling them, he says the DVLA has not registered this as it has taken so long for the agency to process the information in the original application.

"The DVLA sent a letter back saying they were concerned about some of the things I had put in the application," he explained.

"They still think I am using the medication, despite me and my doctors telling them I am no longer on it."

Having recently moved from Leicester to Kent, Mr Stevens says the agency is asking for medical information from his new doctor, but are proving near-impossible to reach.

"If you are lucky enough to get through to them on the phone, you are left waiting on hold," Mr Stevens told ITV News.

Tim Stevens said he has taken a financial hit because of the knock-on effects the DVLA delays has had on his employment. Credit: Tim Stevens/Handout

Mr Stevens, who has been able to continue driving under section 88 of the RTA, has not worked since March and is now looking for a new job.

But, despite years of experience in the industry, he is struggling to find one as he says he is required to show any prospective employer a physical, up-to-date driving licence.

"It is frustrating. I want to go to work but I am taking a financial hit because any new employer wants to see the actual physical licence," he said, describing himself as "just getting by" at the moment.

"I have moved in with my girlfriend who is financially supporting me as no new employers will accept a section 88 certificate," he said.

"Financially, I am taking a hit as I am having to use savings to supplement me."

The DVLA said it is back to normal processing times for the vast majority of transactions, with no delays to HGV applications.

"Only medical applications are outside this, but we have advised throughout the pandemic that applications where medical investigations are needed will take longer," a DVLA spokesperson said.

"This is because during the pandemic DVLA medical checks were also deprioritised by the DHSC and were temporarily paused again in December and January 2022 to support the Covid-19 vaccine booster rollout which has impacted processing times for applications needing medical investigations."

"It is important that the driver provides all required information when making an application, as where we require additional information from them we are reliant on receiving this before a decision can be made."